by Heidi North
Though musical forms have evolved in countless ways over the centuries, when it comes to the stories and archetypes we see most often, mainstream classical music and opera are still largely homogenous. While in contrast, women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ composers and performers have always been vital to the art form’s progression.
Developments that have impacted inclusivity and recognition for these artists are more recent than one might realize. It wasn’t until 1913 that women musicians were allowed to play in symphony orchestras, and outward displays of queer love and non-traditional gender identities were illegal until the latter part of the 20th century, consequently suppressing music education. Since the onset of the LGBTQ+ rights movement, the community’s rising visibility has paved the way for LGBTQ+ composers and musicians to be heard, identified, and celebrated.
Through a 2-part series this LGBTQ+ History Month, we’ll introduce you to a few of the countless classical artists who have self-identified or identified through historical context as LGBTQ+.
Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944)
Ethel Smyth was an English composer, a member of the Women’s Suffrage Movement, and openly identified as a lesbian. Though her works earned international acclaim like her Mass in D, she struggled to find musicians who would perform or publish her work because of her gender. Ethel earned the honor of damehood, the first ever bestowed upon a female composer.
Jennifer Higdon (b. 1962)
Jennifer Higdon is an American composer and is a professor of composition at the Curtis Institute of Music. She is a major figure in contemporary classical music, and her works span many genres, from orchestral and ensemble to choral and opera. Jennifer’s first opera, Cold Mountain, won the International Opera award, and she has also earned three Grammy Awards for Best Contemporary Classical Composition in 2010, 2018, and 2020. She identifies as lesbian, and is married to her wife of 36 years, Cheryl Lawson.
Michael Morgan (b. 1957)
Michael Morgan is an American conductor, the current music director of the Oakland East Bay Symphony and the Sacramento Philharmonic Orchestra, and the artistic director of Festival Opera in California. Morgan, who is one of the few openly gay African-American conductors in the United States, focuses on the mission of bringing classical music to underserved audiences.
Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Pytor Tchaikovsky was a well-known Russian composer during the Romantic Period, considered the first Russian composer whose music made an international, lasting impression. Tchaikovsky kept his homosexuality hidden because of his fame and visibility, and also because homosexuality was punishable by prison sentence during his lifetime. His sexuality is often downplayed or unacknowledged in the composer’s homeland due to Russia’s ban on gay propaganda.
Jamie Barton (b. 1981)
Jamie Barton is an internationally known American mezzo-soprano. She made her operatic debut in 2007 with the role of Annina in La Traviata, and is the winner of several prestigious accolades, including coming in first at the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition. She publicly came out as bisexual during National Coming Out Day in 2014.
Julie d’Aubigny (1670 or 1673-1707)
Julie d’Aubigny, also known as Mademoiselle Maupin, was an openly bisexual 17th century French opera singer and fencing master whose amazing life story has been the subject of many books, plays, and operas. She debuted at the famous Paris Opera in 1690 as Pallas Athena in Cadmus et Hermione (by another famous LGBTQ composer, Jean-Baptiste Lully).
Sources and Further Reading:
Conductor Courts Diverse Audiences (VOA News)
Mademoiselle Maupin – The opera singer who beat men in duels as a swordswoman. Oh, and she rescued her lesbian lover from a convent.
10 Famous Asexual Figures from History
Tchaikovsky’s sexuality ‘downplayed’ in biopic under Russia’s anti-gay law (The Guardian)
Putin: Tchaikovsky was gay but Russians love him anyway (Reuters)
How Jamie Barton is making the Last Night of the Proms woke (The Times)
Pride Month 2017: A Look At The LGBT Operas In History (Opera Wire)